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Argentina shale development moves forward, but still slow

Argentina has the potential to become a net exporter of oil and natural gas from its huge shale resources, a task that will require large investments not just by majors but also a lot of junior players, executives said Monday.

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"If Argentina does things right, it could become a big exporter of oil and gas," Arturo Vilas, general manager of Canada's Miramar Hydrocarbons, said at the Argentina Shale Gas and Oil Summit in Buenos Aires.

Argentina has among the world's largest shale oil and gas resources, and big companies like the country's state-run YPF, Chevron and Dow Chemical have started to put them into production, while ExxonMobil, Shell and Total are pursuing production pilots.

The investments have achieved stable production, but it is still "very little," Vilas said.

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The country is producing about 50,000 b/d of oil equivalent in shale oil, gas and liquids, according to Neuquen government data. Neuquen is a southwestern province that is home to the giant Vaca Muerta play and most of the country's shale drilling.

There could be an increase in investment this year thanks to improved conditions for doing business in the country. The new right-of-center government of President Mauricio Macri, who took office in December, has returned the country to global financial markets by ending a 15-year sovereign debt default, expanding financing opportunities for companies. His administration has also raised most energy prices, lifted capital controls and scrapped trade restrictions.

"Investment conditions have improved," Vilas said.

What is more, he said the investments over the past few years have reduced operational risks and proven that Vaca Muerta can extract oil and gas.

To expand production, Argentina needs an influx of junior companies, Vilas said, drawing a comparison to their role in the shale boom in Canada and the United States.

A longer-term necessity is to integrate the region so that the future surplus in Argentine oil and gas production can be sold to neighboring countries, he added.

If Argentina can bring in the investments needed to develop Vaca Muerta and other shale and tight plays, then it could become a net exporter in the nearly 15 years it took the US to go from a big energy importer to a "potentially big exporter," Vilas said.

However, to attract investment, Argentina faces competition from other shale plays in Latin America, including in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, as well as the offshore subsalt resources in Brazil, he said.

Hermann Steinbuch, the manager of production and operations in Argentina for Canada's Madalena Energy, also said that more companies are needed in the plays to achieve explosive growth.

"We need small companies to work in the formations, to take on the risks," he said.

With more operators as well as services companies, this will help to cut cost and improve profit potential, he said.

YPF produces 44% of the country's 520,000 b/d of oil and one-third of the 120 million cu m/d of gas, trailed by BP-backed Pan American Energy, France's Total, Argentina's Pluspetrol and Tecpetrol, China's Sipetrol and Chevron. Most of the juniors produce less than 1% of national oil and gas and have little acreage.

--Charles Newbery, newsdesk@platts.com

--Edited by Derek Sands, derek.sands@spglobal.com